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The alleged regulatory rollback of today tends to follow the same pattern. The agencies have sometimes, as Frank writes, pulled back from practices that offend the dominant players. The Department of Agriculture, for example, watered down its meat inspection processes in the Bush and Clinton eras. But the department hasn’t been shy about wielding its hammer against industry outsiders. When the owner of Montana Quality Foods, an independent meat packer, informed the government that he had received contaminated beef from the heavily subsidized giant ConAgra, the food cops jumped into action and investigated...the whistleblower. And the department actually prohibited a small company in Kansas, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, from testing its own cattle for mad cow disease. After all, if Creekstone advertised the fact that its beef was 100 percent safe, the bigger packers would have to either lose market share or respond to the competition by doing all that expensive inspecting themselves.
Such favoritism resembles the way the mid-20th-century FCC treated the Austin broadcasting operations owned by Lyndon Johnson’s wife. If a rule stood in the Johnsons’ way, the commissioners found a way to waive it. But if an upstart wanted to compete with the couple’s local monopoly, the government came up with an excuse to block it.
The FCC, incidentally, has arguably been more interventionist under Republican chief Kevin Martin than it was under the last Democrat to fill the position, William Kennard. More broadly, according to an August report from the Weidenbaum Center at Washington University in St. Louis and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, regulatory spending has gone up more than $20 billion in constant dollars since Bush became president. Regulatory staffing has decreased in some areas, including labor and the environment, but only slightly—and it has increased by more than 80,000 employees overall. This is not a regulatory apparatus that has been hollowed out and rendered ineffective. It is a government pursuing the same general industry-boosting approach it took from the ’30s through the ’70s. If Frank wants to imagine that we’re in an era of laissez faire now, he ought to extend his fantasy back to the period he prefers.
But he won’t. Frank, who first came to prominence as a caustic cultural critic, now writes with a gosh-wow earnestness about the Roosevelt-Truman-Johnson era; he spends more time describing a gooey civic text from 1945 called We Are the Government than he does exploring the government’s actual activities in the ’40s. Frank has a long history of disdaining any American figures, from Barry Goldwater to the Beats, who challenged the mid-century liberal consensus. In this book he extends his animus even to the public’s post-Watergate skepticism, pointing out that it “permanently poisoned public attitudes toward government and stirred up a wave that swept Ronald Reagan into office six years later—and made antigovernment cynicism the default American political sentiment.” This is the domestic equivalent of a neocon fretting about the Vietnam Syndrome.
Frank’s narrative reaches a crescendo when he describes the Northern Marianas, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific where taxes on capital were low, minimum wage laws were weak, construction permits were granted freely, and, in a sharp break from all that deregulation, an army of foreign guest workers were legally prohibited from changing jobs without official permission and thus were largely helpless in the face of abuse. When the Interior Department started making noises about overruling some of those policies, the island government hired the right-wing fixer Jack Abramoff to make its case to the nation. Abramoff dutifully began to boast about the benefits the territory had accrued with its lower taxes and lighter business regulations. Those advantages were real, but they were only part of the story. As long as those workers were legally chained to their employers, exploitation was inevitable.
You might conclude from this that labor mobility in the Marianas needed to be deregulated. Frank concludes that the free market is a fraud. Specifically, he says: “What went on in the [Northern Marianas] could not have happened without the active involvement of the state. Yes, this was a free-market paradise, as the libertarians assured the world on dozens of occasions, but a free-market system never simply means do what thou wilt.”
So is there any merit at all to this book? Actually, there is. Frank devotes a lot of space to the underside of the right in the Reagan years, when Abramoff and Ralph Reed were College Republicans instead of corrupt appendages to the political class. This is the one section where he makes a real contribution to our understanding of the last three decades, sifting through ancient direct-mail packages and low-circulation right-wing journals to paint a vivid picture of a milieu that hasn’t received much attention from historians.
The account that emerges is sometimes superficial, but Frank has noticed something that many mainstream pundits miss: the flat-out weirdness of the 1980s right. Modern Republicans often chide the liberals of that decade for not realizing the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse, but the conservatives could be even further off base. Just a few years before the Communist system collapsed under its own weight, paranoid cold warriors imagined Moscow as a virtually all-powerful giant, its tentacles pulling stateside liberals’ strings while our weak-willed society teetered toward surrender.
Meanwhile, Rambo-era conservatives cast themselves as a band of guerrilla heroes, openly drawing on their Marxist enemies for inspiration. Frank actually understates the levels of irony here. He describes the right’s love affair with a series of morally dubious anticommunist rebellions in the Third World, with the Angolan thug Jonas Savimbi receiving the veneration that a certain sort of leftist gives to Che Guevara. “Angola had been one of the very last countries in Africa to be freed from colonial domination,” Frank explains, “but unlike so many other ‘national liberators’ over the preceding decades, Savimbi was not a Communist.” Somehow Frank neglects to mention the funniest part of the tale: Savimbi was a communist, or at least had played that role when his biggest benefactors were based in Beijing rather than the Heritage Foundation. In Cambodia, similarly, the right exalted the nationalist opponents of the Vietnamese occupation while tiptoeing around the fact that they were effectively fronts for Pol Pot, the bloodthirsty former dictator who made Mao look like a mild-mannered McGovern volunteer. The same people who accused liberals of being naive communist dupes were themselves...naive communist dupes.
Against this background, the young Abramoff and others drew freely on libertarian language about the virtues of the market and the evils of the state, even as they prepared for careers of using the state to feather their nests. This phenomenon is genuinely disturbing, and if Frank had been willing to take his foes’ ideas seriously he could have expanded his discussion of it into a potent critique.
Frank is wrong to blame the libertarian attitude toward government for the crony capitalism of the Bush years. But it is true that many conservatives used the libertarians’ anti-statist rhetoric as they acquired power, then turned around and behaved like stock villains from the free market imagination. Worse yet, some people in the libertarian movement were their willing partners, if not in the looting spree then in the selective outrage that helped those unprincipled opportunists take over Washington.
Someone could write an interesting book about that. But not Frank. For one thing, he’d have to contrast such corruption with the behavior of all the free market organizations that refused to fold their principles when a funder’s interests were at stake. More important, he’d have to acknowledge that there is such a thing as a libertarian principle in the first place, that it’s possible to take a stand for economic liberty and anger a wealthy corporate donor in the process.
If Frank embraced that sort of intellectual rigor, his thesis would have unraveled. He would have had to treat the people who believe in unfettered markets as more than just a front group for the regime that brought us billion-dollar bailouts and a trillion-dollar war. And that would mean acknowledging that Frank’s political tribe is not the only conceivable alternative to the Bush Republicans.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of American Radio (NYU Press).